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Article by Gary Tomlinson - 1997
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Grade Appropriate Concepts

Gary Tomlinson
Associate Curator
Chaffee Planetarium
272 Pearl NW
Grand Rapids MI 49504
(616) 456-3532


Iºve been searching (actually for several years) for some "expert" in the field to indicate what are the most appropriate grades at which to teach specific astronomical concepts in the planetarium. While great strides in this quest have been achieved in recent years with the work of the American Association for the Advancement of Science's Project 2061, the National Research Council's National Science Education Standards and others, trying to design a list of grade appropriate concepts has been, to me, confusing and riddled with questions. In trying to devise such a list, I've come to assume that the reason an Ñexpert" has not previously constructed such a list is three fold:

  1. All the research needed to answer these questions hasn't been completed yet.
  2. There is still much work to be done to get that specific even with the research already completed.
  3. Much depends on the teacher, the school district, the method used, the students social economic background, the time devoted to the concept in question as well as the individual student in question.

Nonetheless, I feel that such a list would be a good starting point for designing planetarium school shows for planetariums that are not in a school setting and that don't see the same students on a regular basis. Since I am not an "expert," I will not profess that the accompanying list will be completely "on the mark." It is my interpretation of what other people and organizations have suggested and may serve as a foundation upon which to build. In fact, I am hoping the Planetarian can become a forum for my peers to comment, suggest, delete, add, correct and build upon my interpretation of the reference material listed at the end of this article.

Cary Sneider, Lawrence Hall of Science, who served on some of the committees who constructed some of the books mentioned above, states that "there is no ideal age for all students to encounter a given idea." Even so, Sneider believes teachers (and planetarians?) need guidance in selecting a reasonable place to start. He goes on to say that teachers do (or should) follow some general rules that will help most students. They are:

  1. At the earliest grade level, it is best for students to observe and think about what they saw.
  2. At older grade levels, students can observe more complex patterns, create models, argue and debate.
  3. At the oldest grade level, students can appreciate theories and how they explain and predict phenomena.

Dennis Schatz, Pacific Science Center, holds the view that what we teach is not as important as how we teach — and I agree, so this list is just part of the task at hand. We need to teach these concepts in the classroom (and in the planetarium, if possible) by allowing children to explore, experiment, observe, try, fail and to use other hands-on approaches while at the same time confronting their misconceptions. Wow! We have a large task ahead of us.

Steve Fentress, Strasenburgh Planetarium, believes an even better approach than trying to construct a list of grade appropriate concepts would be to construct a list of student asked questions (without any teacher influence) by grade level and then set about to appropriately answer these questions. Fentress further believes that planets have a profound effect upon kids. They want to know more about them and this, therefore, may serve as a strong motivational tool.

At any rate, in constructing this list, I was struck by three general suggestions:

  1. Use analogies
  2. Kids find mythology, UFOs, and aliens interesting
  3. Many of the concepts we used to cover in the planetarium have been delegated to later grades and fewer concepts are covered now

So, without further adieu, here is the list I have constructed. Note that sometimes a concept is listed in different grade ranges. The first time it is listed would be more of an introduction to the concept.

Grade Appropriate Concepts

Pre school - K
Clouds (sometime block the Sun)
Sun moves (no mention of Earth rotation) across the sky
Sun is in daytime sky
Sun is hot and bright
Moon is sometimes seen in the day or night
Moon moves across the sky (no Earth rotation)
Stars move across the sky (no Earth rotation)
Star pictures (simple shapes)
(under 6 years old, constellations are not appropriate)

1 - 2
Moon looks different daily but repeats monthly (no explanation)
Many stars in sky (more than can be easily counted)
Day & night (no Earth rotation)
The darker it gets, the more stars we see
Different star brightness and color (observation, not explanation)
It gets dark earlier in the winter
How to look at the sky
(Azimuth motion would confuse this age level)

3 - 5
Daily motion, how do stars appear to move
Planets move
The Earth is part of a Solar System
Sun is a star (produces energy)
Stars are far away, Sun is close
Apparent size
Spherical shape of planets
Star shape
Constellations, seasonal (simple)
Moon phasing (just identification, not explanations)
Telescopes (used to see more, what lenses do, magnification, lens curvature)
(this age level likes facts; up & down may not be comprehended under 4th grade)

6 - 8
Milky Way (location of Earth)
Star distances, light years
Seasons & seasonal changes
Physical data of planets, moons, asteroids, etc.
Moon phases
Solar System formation
Sun is very close
Gravity holds Earth in orbit
Life conditions on other planets
Telescopes (focal length, magnification, parts, make a telescope)
(6th graders canºt understand the reasons for Moon phases)

9 - 12
Star size, temperature, age and make up
Age of the Universe
Stellar Evolution
Milky Way
Electromagnetic radiation
Big Bang
Binary stars
Same elements everywhere
Telescopes and other astronomical instruments
How we know what we know

Well, thatºs the list. Any comments, suggestions, additions??

Science For All Americans, American Association for the Advancement of Science, 1989
Benchmarks for Science Literacy, American Association for the Advancement of Science, 1993
National Science Education Standards, National Research Council, 199
Michigan Essential Goals and Objectives for Science Education (K-12), Michigan Department of Education, 1991
"Astronomy Learning and Student Thinking," Jeanne E. Bishop, Mercury, March-April 1996, pp. 16-18
"Focus on Education: Children's Ideas of Space," Jeanne E. Bishop, Planetarian, Spring 1980, pp. 24-27
"Planetarium Methods Based on the Research of Jean Piaget," Jeanne E. Bishop, Planetarian, September 1976, pp. 3-8
"A Study of Kindergarten Students in the Planetarium," Paul T. Davis, Planetarian, Winter 1978, pp. 3-6
"A Rationale For the Implementation of a Maximum Impact School Planetarium Facility," Mark S. Sonntag, Planetarian, Summer 1979, pp. 3-10
Planetarium Activities for Student Success Vol. 1: Planetarium Educators Workshop Guide 2nd. ed., Alan J. Friedman, et. al. 1990
Astronomy Education: Current Development, Future Coordination, Astronomical Society of the Pacific, 1996
The Universe at Your Fingertips, Astronomical Society of the Pacific, 1995
The Teaching of Astronomy, Jay M. Pasachoff & John R. Percy, Cambridge University Press, 1990

I wish to thank the following people for reviewing this article and making it better than I could have alone. Thanks to: Steve Fentress, Jeanne E. Bishop, Alan Gould, Garry Beckstrom & Cary Sneider.

Reprinted from the Planetarian, Vol 26, #1, March 1997. Copyright 1997 International Planetarium Society. For permission to reproduce please contact Executive Editor, Sharon Shanks.

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